A lecture on St. Aloysius Gonzaga – Jesuit Saint by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J., …WHO DEDICATED AND PLACED HIS PRIESTHOOD UNDER THE PROTECTION AND CARE OF THIS VERY SPECIAL SAINT)
Saint Aloysius Gonzaga – Jesuit Saint
by THE SERVANT OF GOD, Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
… have our conference on St. Bernard today, but I’ll do the next best. We do have our own great mystic, St. Aloysius. St. Aloysius Gonzaga is the correct pronunciation, the first syllable, was born on March the 9th, 1568 in Lombardy, in Italy and he died around midnight between the 20th and 21st of June in 1591 and that was the age of 23. As a member of the nobility and his fathers’ great ambition was to make a soldier out of him and to make sure he would start early enough, at the age of four he was given a full equipment of soldier’s weaponry and all the paraphernalia and at five was sent to a garrison of soldiers with some three thousand men who were training for the war against the Moors. While with the soldiers he picked up some bad language. Later on when his tutor told him those were wrong things he was saying, he was ashamed for the rest of his life and we might say that he had a conversion at the age of seven–that’s pretty young. From the age of seven, he began daily to recite the Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary and also the seven penitential psalms and other devotions each day, always on his knees and without support or cushion. I should immediately add that even as Peter Claver had his fellow Jesuit saint, who you might say, first to rear him in the secrets of sanctity, namely the brother, Alphonsus Rodriquez, so Aloysius had as confessor and spiritual father, St. Robert Bellarmine which tells us something about saints producing saints. In any case, St. Robert who knew him well, observed he was sure that Aloysius had never committed a mortal sin. His father, in an effort to prepare him for the kind of life he was going to be living, sent Aloysius to Florence and one of his clear descriptions of the society of the nobles in Florence was, he said, it was a society of fraud, dagger, poison and lust of the most hideous kind. In other words, he didn’t like it. He had a very strong will, he also had strong passions, especially temptation to lust. He began to practice self-discipline to preserve his chastity, he tried to imitate the lives of the fathers of the desert and among other things which he did in order to protect his chastity, it is recorded of him that he never once looked straight at any women. He suffered from an early age of a serious kidney disease which was painful so that even ordinary food caused him much distress and he was regularly in pain. Yet along with all his physical disabilities, he fasted three days a week, three full days on bread and water. He would also scourge himself with a dog whip and every midnight he’d get up to pray on a stone floor, no matter what the weather was, in winter without heat. He tried to make an hours meditation without distraction. It took him several hours of effort to get one hour without distraction. When his father heard that he wanted to become a Jesuit, he was furious. First he was very much opposed then for a while the father relented, but again the opposition this time, not only from the father, but from everybody that the father could get to try to break down Aloysius’ intention. He got the nobility and those who couldn’t come to the palace of the family in Lombardy, the son would be sent from one nobleman to another, trying to convince him, but no luck.
Then he got some bishops, this is the father, and the bishops-that’s a new one–the bishops got on the side of the father tried to dissuade his son from becoming a Jesuit priest. Then the father sent his boy on various civil commissions to distract him–no luck. From early as eighteen, very reluctantly because the mother finally broke down the father’s resistance, the boy entered the novitiate. A statement recorded of him when he entered his novice days, “this is my rest for ever and ever, here will I dwell for I have chosen it” (a passage from one of the Psalms). Six weeks later, after he entered the Jesuit novitiate the father suddenly died. Before he died, however, the fathered relented and died a very edifying death. That’s quite a record before he became a Jesuit. While he didn’t have much more to live but I’ve got fifteen features of his biography in the next five years in the Society of Jesus.
The first thing that happened when he became a Jesuit he was ordered to get more sleep; he was told to get more food. I think I told you, didn’t I, one of my prize letters from the provincial, “I hear you’re getting less than the sleep you need–get six hours” so I’ve been trying to be obedient ever since. After finishing his novitiate, Aloysius was sent to Milan. It was at Milan, still as a scholastic, that one day during morning prayers, he had a revelation that he had not long to live and his joy was overwhelming. Through some artifice, nobody knows how he did it, but he managed to get the worst room in the house. He got frequent ecstasy at the most inconvenient times–at table, in class, and even in recreation. His meditations, as his contemporaries later attested, were mainly on the attributes of God. In other words, he would meditate on God’s goodness, wisdom, beauty, and from these meditations on the attributes of God, he derived extraordinary joy. Then in 1591, a terrible plague broke out in Rome during which the Jesuits, including the father general, went out to care of the plague-stricken–the disease is very infectious–father general led the Jesuits in this work of mercy. Aloysius, in spite of his bad health, managed to get permission to help out. He would care for the sick, encourage them, lead them in their prayers, prepare them for death. He would choose the most menial and distasteful tasks. He caught the disease. During the disease, he asked for viaticum; he thought he was dying, then later on he confessed that he was too impatient in looking forward to death. He recovered from the disease, but then was laid low by a fever which he had for three months. As long as he could he would rise from bed at night and worship on his knees before the crucifix. During his dying illness, Father Bellarmine, a man up in years by then, would stay hours with his penitent and Aloysius asked him, “is it possible to go straight to Heaven without any purgatory”, ‘yes, Bellarmine said, it’s quite possible’. “Well, can I ask for that grace?” ‘You sure can.’ So he begged for the grace to, when he died go straight to Heaven and no purgatory. The night before he died, he had an ecstasy all night. With the members of his community around him, he was talking to the rector who was standing over his bed, “we’re going, father, we’re going”. The rector said, ‘where are we going?’ “We’re going to Heaven”. So the rector jokingly said, ‘You’d think he was going to Froscoty’ (that, by the way, is a Jesuit villa outside of Rome). Just before he died, he pronounced the words, “into Thy hands” and passed away. He was canonized in 1726 and his relics which prayed before many times, are in the Church of St. Ignatius in Rome. He wrote many letters which have been preserved and are worth reading. ‘The Best Life of St. Ignatius’ is by the same Fr. Broderick, remember? but ‘The Best Life of St. Aloysius’ is Fr. Martindale. Martindale’s life of Aloysius has large chunks of his letters … make fine meditation.
Anyone who thinks that Jesuits are cut to a single mold, by now you can see we are very, very different. More than once I have made a statistic of the average life span of our canonized saints, Aloysius brings the age way down and we have a lot of young saints. The average, I think, is forty-one. So when people tell me that I’m working too hard–no I’m not, I’m loafing. What am I doing still on earth?
Now some insights into Aloysius’ spirituality. To the one virtue which the Church has chosen, and on account of which has chosen him ‘the universal patron of youth’, was his chastity. All the evidence we have indicates that he had very strong sexual passions. We know that from his own writing; we know that from people who knew him and we know that from what is called penance from one view-point, what is really, you might say ‘preventive austerity’ from another. He simply believed that unless he mortified his body, and I didn’t tell you one tenth of what he did, he just would not get that passion under control. The lesson for us, in a sex-mad world, is obvious. You do not control that passion without mortification, you just don’t. As a result, the Church has held him up as a model of what even the most passionate personality can achieve, always with God’s grace, but not as we’ve said, more than once. We may not be able to, given our temperament of the circumstances in which we are living, we may not be able to cope with temptation–we need grace, very well, how do you get the grace? –through prayer and mortification. And Christ’s words, remember? about a certain demon, not being able to be driven out except, remember? through penance. Well, it’s a non-title to give the devil, but, he is the demon of lust; though being without a body himself, he knows, he knows, how by stirring this passion, he can lead people into any kind of sin. That’s the first and towering lesson of the life of St. Aloysius.
That chastity is not easily preserved in any age and in our day, is humanly impossible without grace merited through prayer and penance. A good reason, a very good reason, for becoming a religious these days, I mean, of course, a good religious, a real religious, is to preserve oneself from the lust that we breath in a country like ours like the atmosphere.
Second feature of his spirituality. His profound humility shown in the fact that as you know in certain cultures, notably the Italian and Spanish nobility, is highly prized. And after four hundred years, for example, in Latin America, the cleavage between, call them the nobility, and the rest of the people, Aloysius, under divine inspiration from early boyhood, recognized that if he is to even save his soul, he cannot pride himself on his rank or social state. In the United States we don’t have, I suppose I can say, “thank God”, nobility. We don’t have a lady this and a sir that or counts and countesses, but, my friends, we sure have status. The books that I’m not recommending to your reading, but just to know that it exists. It’s a good book to read, called “Status Secrets” by Vance Packard. In the United States, Packard describes with great detail how status conscious Americans are. I live on 83 and Park Ave. All I have to do is walk up Park Ave. to 96th Street and then it’s a different world. In other words, you might say the barbarians of New York live beyond 96th. Where people live, how they dress, even the names of the streets, ‘Aw, you can live on such and such a drive or such and such a lane or you have not a cheap, pardon me, Chevrolet or Ford, but a Buick or a Cadillac. Aloysius hated pretense–a lesson for everyone of us–putting on, and let me tell you, this has infested every rank and every state of life. I won’t dare identify the diocese, but I called up … I was in the city on some great problem affecting the large community of the diocese and I wasn’t just a private individual because I do work for the Congregation for Religious, so I called up to make an appointment with a Vicar for religious in that diocese and he invited me, 12 o’clock noon, I thought to myself, “how kind of him, we’ll have lunch together”, so I showed-up at the Chancery, few minutes before 12 and a receptionist said, ‘sit down’ so I sat down. And a telephone call from the priest was “Vicar, call the office”, he was in the building, ‘would you tell Father to wait while I have my lunch’. I waited over an hour. He came back smiling. All I can tell you, it took a lot of grace, but I smiled, too. He wanted to make sure I knew who was in charge, because he knew the message that I had to share with him would somehow touch on his authority. That’s the second feature of Aloysius’ spirituality–a humility without pretense and he didn’t have to pretend because he was of the highest nobility.
Third feature of his spirituality, we may call it casually, penance, but it is much more refined. Under divine guidance, Aloysius recognized that we all have powerful drives in our fallen nature, called the ‘capital sins’, the more sophisticated name is our concupiscence. We all have these drives–there are seven. You know them by heart, don’t you? you know them by memory, don’t you? places g … well, this is an insight into the meaning of penance that only a person as totally innocent as Aloysius could teach us … one reason he was canonized. For even though we have not personally sinned, we commonly and correctly associate doing penance for our own past mistakes. In Margaret of Cortona, all right, she had a sinful past, and Augustine, you better believe it, had a sinful past but not Aloysius. So what’s all this penance about. There are a few things I will share with you during these conferences on the Jesuit saints, more important than this one. The insight that he gave the Church was that even though we have not personally sinned, either we do, and the word is violence to our sinful nature or concupiscence will do violence to us. Now in some people, they are just stronger than in others. Mothers tell me, they can tell when, for example, a child, a girl of three … “Father” the mother tells me, “Mary is going to have trouble with humility for the rest of her life.” Have you seen it in youngsters? or temper, or, and this is the easiest, sloth. We all have these drives, some are stronger than others, depending on who the person is and how much we have given in to a particular tendency. With Aloysius, it was lust, he knew it and in order to teach the world the need for penance, not just to expiate sins committed but in order to master our sinful desires what we still call penance, is something that we should all learn from Aloysius to practice, to ask ourselves, what is my predominant passion? and then, what am I doing? Ignatius famous phrase ‘Hacer contra’ act against, do the opposite of that which you have a tendency to do.
Fourth feature of his spirituality. Aloysius had a profound understanding of the gravity of sin. In his own life, in the life of others and in how dreadful a thing it is to offend the good God. If there is one mystery of our faith that needs strengthening in these days, it is the fact of sin. Who talks about it? He was not a theologian, but one of the ranking American psychiatrists who wrote a book not too long ago on “What ever happened to sin?” People have simply lost their sense of guilt.
Fifth feature. Already from childhood, Aloysius looked forward to going to Heaven, the mystery of Heaven. No doubt one reason that he performed extraordinary penance, and that remember in addition to all of his physical disabilities which he already experienced from childhood, one reason was that he just looked forward to a day and all of this would end. No wonder when he caught the plague in Rome, from which he briefly recovered then shortly after got a fever and died, he confessed impatience with wanting to die. It wasn’t death that he welcomed, it was the aftermath of death, namely Heaven. May I recommend a daily looking forward to Heaven and to ask God to give us some foretaste of what awaits us. It will make this world, seem by comparison, very cheap and dreary, indeed.
Another (6TH) feature of Aloysius spirituality is charity in the practice of mercy so much so that we can call him a ‘martyr of charity.’ Sometime when we read Christ’s statement which he made by our loving our neighbor even to laying down our life for the neighbor, we don’t really mean this, but, we think, well, it must be some theological exaggeration, Christ didn’t really mean it. He not only meant it, He lived it, or you could make a transitive verb-He died it. That’s what the crucifixion is all about. One meaning of Calvary that can be lost on us–this is a voluntary sacrifice of His life as an act of charity. Most of us find enough difficulty, I don’t say in dying for people, but in living with people. I get some idea of how this charity can be very costly. If in God’s providence He gives us the opportunity of laying down literally our lives for another person, God be praised. Whom is the Holy Father canonizing this year who is a martyr of charity, Maximillian Kolbe. Another one, Aloysius. Charity, in other words, means not only doing good, but giving up self including the dearest possession we have, naturally speaking, our lives.
And finally (7TH), Aloysius spiritual joy. As we look at the short life of Aloysius, depending on the person’s view point, it may seem oppressive, it shouldn’t be, but, in modern jargon, it has so much (pardon the expression) so much of the negative, you know, penance, mortification, sin–and a world that has gone mad, drunk with sin, doesn’t realize that already this side of eternity, we are to be an Aloysius was literally; we are to be, if it is God’s will, ecstatically happy of that. We are not to be sad. We are not, God forbid, to be unhappy. The secret, and what an open secret it is in the life of Aloysius, the secret is to find the happiness in the right place. That’s all, yes, but that’s everything. In other words, as a closing observation, Aloysius showed that’s why the Church canonized him, that when Christ gave us the eight Beatitudes, which are eight promises of happiness, He meant it. The condition for being happy, well, that’s part of the Covenant, that’s what we do, but if we do our part, God comes through.
Saint Aloysius, pray for us. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.